Each advance in mass communication gets presented as the step that was going to bring revolutionary social changes, and the cinema forms no exception. The pioneers stressed its enormous power for education, claiming that visual presentation of the realities of war, for example, would help to end it. It did not work out like that. Social issues – war, crime, strikes, sex, drink and gangsters – provided subjects for serious films, and some of them did produce the intended effects, for example helping to get red-light districts shut down and establishing a Widows’ Pension Law in New York. But that happened mainly in the early days. With the advent of sound, especially, cinema came to be devoted overwhelmingly to entertainment.
A routine reply presents this as less a response to popular preferences than a deliberate campaign by the film-makers, acting on behalf of a capitalist class determined to suppress criticism of the system providing its profits. This may seem plausible, but it does raise a problem. We hear, in other connections, that capitalism operates anarchically, the various people and firms pursuing each their individual interest; this with its destructive consequences forms a major ground of criticism. If there really did exist a ready-made mass market of ordinary people, willing to pay for serious films on social problems, it would have been quite out of character for supporters of capitalism, especially such enthusiastic ones as the film moguls, to turn away from it, foregoing quick and easy profits in order to further the long-term common interests of the class. It raises fewer difficulties to say that the subjects chosen for films, and the approach adopted, remain within limits set by the preferences of the general body of the people. Capitalism tends to pursue profit by catering to an existing demand, (often developing it in the process). (Based on a review, by David Coward, of Kevin Brownlow’s Beyond the Mask of Innocence; social problem films of the silent era (Cape), in TLS 22 March.
from Ideological Commentary 52, Summer 1991.